Friday 15 December 2023

MAY 1998: Theatre Review

WHAT: May 1998
WHEN: 13 - 16 December 2023
WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus
WRITTEN & PERFORMED BY: Victoria Winata
DIRECTED BY: Acacia Nettleton
DESIGN BY: Nathan Dinh
LIGHTING BY: Rob Foard
SOUND DESIGN BY: Sarah Gooda

Victoria Wintana - photo supplied

Last week I reviewed Surat Suratnya which was a memory piece about the Indonesian purges in the 1960s which brought President Suharto into power. This week we move forward in time to May 1998 when students rioted and the rule of President Suharto came to an end. Playing this week at The Motley Bauhaus, May 1998 is a powerful interrogation on the issues surrounding multiculturalism and what defines our national pedigree. Whilst not specifically about Australia, an Australian audience will find that the questions arising in May 1998 are questions we are in the process of asking ourselves.

In May 1998 Victoria Winata (writer and performer) has created a bilingual, surrealist monologue. It shifts between the memories of the past and dreams of the future, it shifts between hope and despair, and it shifts between Indonesian and English language. Designer Nathan Dinh has captured that perfectly in a set grounded by a table and chairs, but with the floor boards falling away and the edges of the stage strewn with memorabilia including protest placards, photo books, children's shoes, etc. Normally I would rail against a table placed centre stage because, as I always say, why would you give the most powerful position on stage to a piece of furniture? In this instance though, it works because of the clever blocking of Acacia Nettleton (director).

May 1998 is a raw and intensely personal remembrance of a terrifying experience to live through and the soul wrenching struggle to be accepted. I'm not sure I understand why the concept of a homeland is so important to us, and even as I write this I see the irony because I identify strenuously as an Australian even though I am first generation. For the Chinese Indonesian community, the struggle to be accepted as something other than a cultural minority in Indonesia has been ongoing even though they migrated over a hundred years ago. During the Suharto regime the policy was assimilation, which meant unique cultural practices were discouraged - we know quite a bit about assimilation policies in Australia too, don't we?

Whilst the May 1998 riots were supposedly an unrest led by students, the truth is that the seeds were sown in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, and it is believed the military actually engineered the riots to unseat Suharto. Inflation similar to the conditions in Germany which led to WWII created a social and economic disaster which could only have one outcome. In the riots the Chinese Indonesians became the target of pent up frustration and despair. We always look for an 'other' in these situations and it was this community which bore the brunt. Typically, it didn't even matter what your background was, if you looked Chinese you became a target.

In May 1998 Winata's character 'I' remembers the terror and confusion of the riots. The show begins with her getting a phone call saying her grandmother is dead, but she can't go to her funeral. She can never go back because she promised she never would. We learn that 'I' has migrated to Australia after the riots, after the most horrible thing that can happen has happened. We learn about the overwhelming stench of burning in the air, the crowds of people on the streets. 'I' goes out in the streets to look for her brother. Winata never says specifically what happened but suffice to say that there were a lot of rapes during those riots.

Telling the story in Indonesian and English, 'I' declares her right to assert Indonesia as her homeland. She will never consider herself Australian and will never become a citizen because she is Indonesian. Her plea and demand is that both Indonesia and China accept that claim so that she can return home. I admit, I don't know enough about the Chinese part of this story to understand what influence China plays in this narrative.

Winata is a poet as well as stepping into playwrighting, and the beauty and intensity of this writing is breath-taking. Add to that her incredible skill as an actor, and in May 1998 we have an enduringly powerful piece of story-telling. I am going to say it is perhaps around 10 min too long, but that might only be because I don't understand Indonesian and there are a couple of long passages in that language which allowed me to temporarily disconnect. Having said that, the beauty of the language, and the deep authenticity of Winata's performance kept me entranced even when I couldn't specifically understand what was being said.

Sarah Gooda's sound design was a light touch, but very effective, and the rhythm developed for Winata to move into more lyrical passages was delightful. Winata's connection to poetry comes through almost as strongly as her connection to Indonesia in this painful yet stunning piece of theatre.

I know this is a heavy topic for this festive time of the year, but I strongly recommend you go and see May1998 because I don't know if it will be restaged. I hope it will. If you saw Surat Suratnya you absolutely have to come and see May 1998 to see the next chapter in the story.

4.5 Stars


Thursday 7 December 2023

FUNeral: THEATRE REVIEW

WHAT: FUNeral
WHEN: 7 - 9 December 2023
WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus
WRITTEN & PERFORMED BY: Ruby Rawlings and Clare Taylor

Clare Taylor and Ruby Rawlings

What do Vanessa Amarossi and Death have in common? Absolutely everybody! Wocka, wocka wocka!

Well, actually, they also have the creative team of Clare Taylor and Ruby Rawlings in common. These two feisty women take Death head on with all the energy of a millennial pop star in FUNeral, playing this week for three shows only at The Motley Bauhaus.

Terry Pratchett's character Death has joined the digital age and is using their PowerPoint skills to interlope on a pair of women determined to cheat him of his prizes. Death always turns up early - they are a dedicated soul - and at FUNeral they wait with all of us for the show to begin. Just as they are about to give up Rawlings and Taylor burst onto the stage with high energy lip synching and eventually become aware that another presence is sharing their stage. There is a brief moment of mistaken identities, but then it is a head on battle despite humanities dismal record of nil-all. 

Taylor and Rawlings are determined to help us all learn how to live longer despite an insinuation by that dark demon that there is not much time left for them. Poo-pooing the well-researched Yale guide to a long healthy life, this enterprising pair have come up with their own step by step plan to stay alive which is a whole lot more fun even if it hasn't been published in a peer reviewed journal...yet.

FUNeral is a fun journey traversing a terrain which flits between surreal imaginings, a rather dubious TEDX session, and heart felt fears and truths. FUNeral was originally conceived during the height of the pandemic and Rawlings and Taylor reveal all the things which are most precious to them and would miss should Death visit their worlds. It ends with us all having a moment we can share the most precious things in our own lives. It is always magical to take those moments to share and honour the things we love and FUNeral lets us do that amongst a whole lot of laughter and fantasy.

Taylor and Rawlings are VCA Company 2020 and whilst we hear a lot about how hard it was for that graduating year because of lockdowns, one thing we don't talk about a lot, is just how good that cohort is working with technology - a skill they had to master in that environment. What makes FUNeral work is how easily these two actors interact with the most basic PowerPoint presentation ever made. Death is real, and in the room with us - an invisible puppet who pushes and pulls and plays with just as much life as the women. And they are funny!

I have to admit that I found it hard to really care about the women's fears of what they might lose if someone dies - it seems like a lot of wasted energy to me - but I really loved the message of cherishing what is most precious to us all. FUNeral is a sweet, high energy and hilarious investigation of how to think about living rather than dying.

4 Stars

SURAT SURATNYA: Event Review

WHAT: Surat Suratnya
WHEN: 6 - 17 December 2023
WHERE: La Mama HQ
WRITTEN BY: Ratna Ayu Budiarti and Wawan Sofwan
DIRECTED BY: Wawan Sofwan
COMPOSITIONS BY: Kurnia Eka Fajar and Ria Soemardjo
PERFORMED BY: Kurnia Eka Fajar, Ellen Marning, and Ria Soemardjo
LIGHTING BY: Cole McKenna
TRANSLATION & DRAMATURGY BY: Sandra Fiona Long

Ellen Marning and Kurnia Eka Fajar - photo by Darren Gill

Surat Suratnya literally means "her letters" in Indonesian and knowing that tells you everything about the event happening at La Mama HQ right now. Comprised of a pre-performance sound installation called 'Between The Letters' and a theatrical monologue called 'Our Last Dinner was Sayur Lodeh' the creative team immerses us in the sounds, smells and stories of Indonesia in the mid 1960's. Inspired by letters written by Ria Soemardjo's mother during the communist purges in Indonesia across 1965-1966, Sandra Fiona Long (translator/dramaturg/producer) has gathered her Australian and Indonesian cohorts and created this collaboration between herself, Soemardjo, and Stage of Wawan Sofwan - to help raise awareness of a difficult time which has been kept hidden and unspoken for so very long. 

Soemardjo's mother, Ibu Helen, is an Australian who married an Indonesian trade unionist. They lived on the island of Java and raised their children there. Unfortunately, the 1960's was a difficult time all over the world as the Cold War initiated an international 'reds under the beds' mania. In Indonesia, a union of islands only very newly minted in its independent sovereignty after 150+ years of colonisation by the Dutch, it was a chance to change power structures harnessing a violence seeded in the rebellions two decades earlier.

In those days anybody who had even the slightest whiff of socialist tendencies was declared a communist - a tendency very well documented in Australian history as well. In Indonesia the outcomes were deadly in the most violent of ways as somewhere between 500 000 and 1 million people were estimated to have been killed. As the wife of a prominent trade unionists living in that social carnage, Ibu Helen's letters home to Australia immortalise the growing turmoil and terror and confusion of those times.

The performances begin with the sound installation in La Mama's rehearsal space created by Soemardjo which establishes our link between Australia today, and Indonesian traditions and music. A man sits in the centre of the room, surrounded by a sheer cloth as if there but not there. He gently plays the Gong Ageng creating swirls and swoons of sound as people gather around. Intimate listening devices are available and you are encouraged to hold them close to your ear, as if to hear secrets from the past, whilst being immersed in the sound waves pulsing around the room at large. At some point in time the playful calls and replies of two Kemanaks draw us back out, play with us, and then invite us into the theatre space.

In there we meet Ibu Helen (Ellen Marning) who is making Sayur Lodeh for the last time as her family readies to evacuate Indonesia for the safer climes of Australia. For her it is going home. For her husband and family it is a fearful new adventure. The scales have tipped now, though. Staying is scarier than leaving.

Wawan Sofwan and Ratna Ayu Budiarti have woven together a monologue out of the aerogrammes Ibu Helen sent back home. Do you remember aerogrammes? Those light weight papers which folded into an envelope which allowed you to correspond internationally at low cost? They were the connections between worlds and designer Yudith Christianto has made them the veil between today and yesterday, copying original letters onto long lengths framing Marning's performance. Some clever silhouette work (Cole McKenna) also links the installation with the monologue at one point in the show. It may be a bit lost on younger audiences just how impactful the discovery that those letters were being intercepted and censored actually was back then, in a world with no internet, email, or social media.

This leads me to my main criticism of Surat Suratnya. Everything is beautiful, gentle, melancholy, and sad, but I feel the terror of those times is missing in this show. I have a connection to Indonesia as my grandfather was in the Dutch army around WWII. During the post war independence struggles my family saw first-hand how violent and terrifying unrest can be in that part of the world. My family finally left the day after their next-door neighbours had their heads decapitated. That kind of terror is visceral and the violence during the purges was far worse than the fight for independence. This is what I missed from the performance.

It was probably opening night nerves as much as anything, but I felt Marning was too much in her head. If she can find a way to take all of those overwhelming emotions flooding her eyes and feed them into her body through the chopping of the vegetables, and perhaps working with breath (in the monologue Ibu Helen talks about being asthmatic but not being able to get medication), the vibrations of that will create a tension belied by the soulful timbre of Kurnia Eka Fajar's Gamelan instrumentation, and the Indonesian philosophies underlying food.

Context is everything sometimes and I feel kind of sorry for those in the audience who will probably miss some of the humour - as did I perhaps... I had a good old cackle when Ibu Helen tells us her husband was held in high regard despite his Dutch education.

Sometimes theatre is about entertainment. Sometimes theatre is about education. Sometimes theatre is about orientation. Sometimes theatre is about beautification. Sometimes theatre is about revelation. Surat Suratnya is all of these things in a range of measures.

3.5 Stars

Saturday 2 December 2023

THE LAST EMPEROX: Book Review

WHAT: The Last Emperox
WRITTEN BY: John Scalzi


2020 was a place for some arts to die, but it was also a place where other arts got to fly. Books were one of the winners of that difficult time. According to The Authors Guild fiction books sales increased by 18%. One book published in the midst of lockdowns and a world turned inside out was the final instalment of the Interdependency trilogy, called The Last Emperox, written by John Scalzi. I must admit, I started reading this when it was released. I feel it is quite telling that I have only just finished this book, so many years later. 

The Interdependency trilogy actually began as a two-book space opera. As it was written it became apparent a third instalment was necessary and, whilst I haven't read the first two, I feel like the whole story actually lies in the second half of this third book.

The trouble with writing what have become known as space operas is that the authors think they can reveal things slowly and in a convoluted manner. This is why I have only just finished this book. In my opinion absolutely nothing happens until the second half. There is no inciting incident of any significance to draw the reader in. On the other hand, in these pages the first 2 books are pretty much explained - or the cliff notes at least - so I don't feel any need to read them and the world is not intriguing enough for me to want to go back and explore the history.

The concept has good potential. The Interdependency is a diaspora of humanity which has managed to fling themselves deep into the universe through wormhole style 'flows'. They now have the technology to build habitats so it doesn't matter that the planets are incompatible for human life. These communities also don't need to be near each other because they are connected by these flow streams.  

The problem is, in the first two books they have discovered these streams are collapsing and the last Emperox, Grayland II, has to figure out how to get as many people through what will be the last remaining stream to the only planet which can sustain human life. An added complication is that one of her enemies has rebelled and taken control of the other end of that stream and any spaceship not permitted through will be destroyed upon arrival. 

The conceit is a lot of fun, and once The Last Emperox stops messing around with all the cloak and dagger stuff, the story really takes off. The structure of the book is in 3 'books' which is part of why I don't think you need to bother with the first two. The characters are mostly fascinating although I think making the key players female is a bit disingenuous and leaves them feeling a bit two dimensional. I don't care what people may say, a woman is not just a man with mammary glands.  

Having said that, the character of Kiva Lagos is great fun. Grayland seems a bit lacking in personality. Nadashe Nohamapetan is a wonderful villian. Perhaps it is worth reading book two, The Consuming Fire, because that is where the rivalry between Lagos and Nohamapetan seems to have been fully realised.

The technology in The Last Emperox is a mix of good ideas and WTF. Scalzi has long had a fascination with life extension and transference of personality to other places as the body dies, kind of like Altered Carbon. The Interdependency trilogy plays with this and there is a big reveal in The Last Emperox which mirrors some of what has been developed in the Foundation TV series. On the disappointing side is the little things, like how they still use tablets and watch shows with the tablets resting on their knees. I would have thought that by that point in our technological development we might have come up with something a bit less cumbersome.

I know this sounds like I didn't enjoy the book. I really did - or at least the second half. The problem is that in 2020 I didn't have the patience to wade through all the soap opera before finally getting to the action. In the end, what is good about science fiction is the technology, the ideas in the world building, and the action. Just like any film script, a book needs to start at a point of action. The past and the relationships get revealed through that moment of impact and the ramifications which come from that.

Despite my reservations I do think science fiction addicts will enjoy this world. This trilogy is possibly a winning Xmas present idea, especially if you have a teen who is a really scifi addict.

3.5 Stars


Saturday 25 November 2023

CHRISTMAS UNDER THE BIG TOP: Event Review

WHAT: Christmas Under The Big Top
WHEN: 24 Nov - 24 Dec 2023
WHERE: Burnley Oval
PRESENTED BY: Damian Syred

Christmas Under The Big Top

The genie is out of the bottle, or perhaps it is more correct to say the Santa is out of the North Pole. Christmas is nearly here, merchandising has already hit the stores and some people have already put up their Christmas lights (WTF?). It's all becoming very real and - just in time - the magic of Christmas has come to Burnley Oval in the form of Christmas Under The Big Top.

Christmas Under The Big Top is a unbelievable event full of fun and magic for toddlers whith just enough consideration for the parents to make it fun for all. To be honest, part of what makes it fun is how much joy and play the kids get from all the activities. This event is possibly the best value for money parents are likely to find in the festive lead up. There are 3 circus tents and the journey through them results in a joy filled, wonder filled, food filled night full of laughs, screams of excitement, and great family memories. 

The first tent is all about photo opportunities, hands on activities, and play for the kids. There are so many places to take photos with snow people, on thrones, and even in Sesame Street! Yes, the stars of this show are Elmo and Cookie Monster, and if you can wait until after the main circus show, you can get your photo with these two megastars of the stage and screen.

This first tent also has a fun teacup ride, the clowns arcade game where prizes can be won, and activities including playing with stacker blocks, kids can make their own bakery snack, and there is even a drawing area. There is popcorn, and fairy floss and slushies available. The most important thing though, is there are bouncing castles. 

There are three in total from what I saw. Two in that first tent and one in the second food tent so there is bouncing opportunities for every little tike! As I just mentioned, the second tent has a bouncing castle, the food cart with simple foods for kids and kid-carrying parents and there is also a coffee station for the parents so don't despair. You can divert outside to an under cover eating area with trestle tables and a Sensory Station for kids to wander through, and here you will access the all-important...um...facilities...?

Once sated, you will have the energy and nerve to meander into the third tent. In the third tent lies wonder and amazement as the circus ring lies waiting for the entertainment about to happen. You can wander into this tent and any time and I think they have kid's stuff happening most of the time, but in the last hour all the stops are pulled out and the real circus reveals itself. 

Circus is always a place of beauty and daring and excitement and the show under this big top doesn't disappoint. After Elmo and Cookie Monster left the stage, Mrs Claus MC's the night as my favourite circus apparatus comes out - The Wheel of Death. As well, we got to see an amazing contortionist, a glorious aerialist on the silks, and - OMG - there was the motorcycles in a Christmas bauble. (Does anyone remember the movie Roustabout?) Three of them at the same time. I nearly feinted in amazement and terror. No wonder it is called The Globe of Death.

I took some family members with me, including a little one. Yes, there were moments of tears - mostly from overstimulation and fatigue - but she made it through the whole evening and was smiling at the end. It was almost impossible to get her away from the bouncing castles, she loved the teacups and the family got some wonderful pictures for the photo album. 

The only downside was the photos with Elmo and Cookie Monster are right at the end of the night because they are performers in the show. This wasn't communicated well which led to some grumpiness, but the moment eventually arrived and smiles were the outcome. Yes, there is also a Santa for more traditional photo outcomes.

If you're looking for fun things to do for Christmas, Christmas Under The Big Top has to be at the top of the list. Ticket prices are low and you can have an amazing time and not spend a cent. If you do have money to spend, most of the stuff you have to pay for is very reasonably priced and, for example, slushy refills are really cheap. Things that come with ticket price include the activities, the tea cup ride, the bouncy castles and the stage shows.

Let's face it, finding things that are fun-filled and the full package when it comes to fun times and entertainment for the little ones are hard to come by. Christmas Under The Big Top is exactly that AND children under 2 are free! So get on down to Burnley Oval and get your Christmas Spirit under Damian Syred's big top.

4.5 Stars


Sunday 19 November 2023

FAIRSPELL ACADEMY: Book Review

WHAT: Fairspell Academy
WRITTEN BY: Ava Richardson

Christmas is coming and it is always so hard to think about Christmas presents. I think I have just uncovered a genius solution for those of you who have young adults to consider. If you haven't heard of her dragon books already, let me introduce you to Ava Richardson. Richardson has authored a multitude of books in her fantasy dragon world, and Fairspell Academy is book two of her latest trilogy about the dragon defenders of Destia.

For those of you familiar with the scifi/fantasy genre, imagine Anne McCaffrey's dragons of Pern and Leigh Bardugo's magical realm of Ravka combined, and all of them living at the Winx academy. This is the world Richardson has created in Fairspell Academy. It's a heady cocktail which skirts the danger of overcomplication really well. As I mentioned, Fairspell Academy is the second book and I haven't read the first one - Pack Dragon - yet, but I have already bought it and it is sitting on my Kindle right now to read along with all of the previous books in this world because Fairspell Academy really is that good! (And yes, I have preordered book 3 too).

The great thing about the way Richardson writes is that we can piece together the history of the story even though, as in my case, I might not have read anything coming before it. This has the potential to become laborious for an already addicted audience, but I think it is done with a light touch so that you don't really quite feel like it happened. 

If you are a true addict - and I was certainly one of those pre-teens who had to read every book in every series written by any author I loved - you will be totally invested in this story moment by moment. For initiates, this is like the Goblet of Fire book in JK Rowling's Harry Potter books. It's full of intrigue and practice and competition you can't put it down. I haven't stayed up to finish a book in ages, but I had to do it with Fairspell Academy.

Eva Thirsk is a private in the Destia army, who accidently bonds with a small pack dragon. She is a farm girl orphan and her dragon, Perrell is too small to be a fighting dragon despite it being her great dream. The first book, Pack Dragon, is about how Eva finds her magical powers and how she and Perrell find themselves in a battle they are the key to winning.

In the second book, Fairspell Academy, Eva has formally been admitted into magic school with Perrell by her side. Eva has to start at the bottom, in magic classes with students several years younger than her. She soon discovers her magic is a bit different than everyone else's and she and Perrell also have to figure out how that brave little dragon can compete in strength contests with the bigger fighting dragons. 

The magic of Fairspell Academy is more than the usual isolated child overcoming insurmountable odds, and secret pasts, and inherited talents. Normally in these kinds of stories the protagonist is the one with all the shortcomings and everyone has to gather around and work as a team to help that person reach their true potential. In Fairspell Academy though, as well as mastering her own arts, Eva has to work with her dragon to help Perrell find ways to achieve her goals and dreams too. Thus, in Eva and Perrell we have a beautiful pairing which goes far beyond selfish ambition. This tale is about team work on a much deeper level than was found at Hogwarts for example.

The beauty about giving these dragon books by Richardson as a Christmas gift is that the world is so well developed the stories will sustain your young adults for possibly the whole next year. They are the gift that will keep on giving! (Oh, and why not give them the McCaffrey books too?)

5 Stars

Saturday 11 November 2023

SALLY CARROT IS A FRAUD: Theatre Review

WHAT: Sally Carrot Is A Fraud
WHEN: 8 - 11 November 2022
WHERE: The Butterfly Club (Upstairs)
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY: James Burgess
PERFORMED BY: Caz Dawes

Caz Dawes

Presented as part of the 'Monologue Festival' at The Butterfly Club this week, you could easily mistake Sally Carrot is a Fraud as just a comedy routine. It is much more than that, and your heart will ache as you learn the journey Sally has taken to get to this moment in her life.

Sally Carrot (Caz Dawes) is a young actor who has turned up to audition for what sounds like a one-line role in some TV series. Along with at least 346 other hopefuls she sits in a room waiting for her number to be called. At the start of the monologue they are only up to the high 200s so she will evidently be there for quite a while. 

To fill in time she starts chatting to the people around her and we learn about her childhood friend Tabitha and the clique she so desperately wanted to be a part of. Sally also tells us about her friend Julia Roberts (yes, the celebrity). Suffice to say, friendships are not easy for Sally, people can be cruel, and an active imagination can help or hinder.

Sally also has a lot of genuinely helpful acting tips along the way including don't be the person you think they want...be the person you are! Sally's life might be different if she followed that advice herself.

The show kicks off with a really funny off-stage set up as Sally finds her way into, out of, and back into the room and finds her seat. Dawes has a wonderfully mobile face for comedy and uses it to maximum potential all through the show. It is actually a bit of a shame the monologue takes a darker turn and never comes back because the set up and the actor are perfect for a laugh-a-minute hour of comedy.

James Burgess is a young film and TV director so he evidently knows the casting call process well. You can always tell when a writer writes what they know. What I don't understand is why he has written this role for a woman rather than a man, because this is where he falls in a hole both in the writing and in the directing. 

For the entire show the text is performed, but the subtext is ignored. Some of this flaw lies with Dawes, but as the director Burgess should have seen this and drawn out the undercurrents. I think, because he wrote the character as a woman, rather than a man, he doesn't truly understand the complexities of the relationships he has created which means he can't see the missing pieces. 

We hear the stories about Tabitha but we never find out how Sally truly feels. We hear about the Avalon Airport incident, but we never see how much damage was caused. We hear about Julia Roberts but we never get clarity on where any of this sits in Sally's mind and what this means for her here and now.

The biggest problem though, is that the stakes of this audition are unclear and there is no emotional pay off at the end for the audience. Because we don't understand the deeper sub-text the ending becomes unbelievable- not in a good way. It is not that we don't understand Sally has gone into a revery, but I have never met a moment of self-revelation which lasts for so long and resists so much prompting.

Add to this, the visual tedium of an actor pretty much just sitting in a chair for an hour and standing up a couple of times, and you have a rather unsatisfying and surprisingly sad night of theatre. It is dangerous for actors to sit when on stage because it usually ends with them relaxing their core. As soon as that happens they relax their grip on the audience. 

If you are going to sit in a chair for a long time you really need to find all the ways you can interact with that chair - especially if you are performing comedy. Just doing something dynamic with the chair would have made Sally Carrot Is A Fraud much more entertaining and would have added some textural depth to the performance.

I think Sally Carrot Is A Fraud is a cute idea and Dawes does a great job with the comic aspects of the material. Unfortunately the show just doesn't have the depth it needs to work as drama, or the comic direction and writing it needs to succeed as a comedy piece. If Burgess goes back and sees what the piece would look like as a male character I suspect he may be able to truly find the depth and detail he is looking for. Don't be the writer you think they want you to be - be the writer you are.

2.5 Stars

Friday 3 November 2023

WEREDINGO: Theatre Review

WHAT: Weredingo
WHEN: 1 - 4 November 2023
WHERE: Arts House (main hall)
WRITTEN & CHOREOGRAPHED BY: Thomas E S Kelly
COMPOSITION BY: Sam Pankhurst
ANIIMATION BY: Studio Gilay
PERFORMED BY: Thomas E S Kelly, Benjin Maza, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, and Vicki Van Hout
LIGHTING BY: Chloe Ogilvie
COSTUMES BY: Selene Cochrane

Benjin Maza, Thomas ES Kelly, and Glory Tuohy-Daniell - photo supplied

Every so often a show comes along which excites your soul and shakes your conscience at the same time. Weredingo, created by Karul Projects and playing this weekend at Arts House, is one of those shows.

Weredingo began as a solo dance exploration back in 2017, when Thomas ES Kelly (writer and choreographer) and producing partner Taree Sansbury created a solo dance exploration of a person shape shifting. That solo - or a version there of - is still in this third iteration of the original idea and is still the powerful centrepiece of the work. In 2019 the original Shifting>Shapes became SSHIFTT. In SSHIFT the work expanded into the basic story we have now, but back then it had a sci-fi aesthetic and perhaps less sophistication in it's dramaturgy. By 2021 this fully realised version of Weredingo emerged as part of the Brisbane Festival. This is the show we are seeing in Melbourne. We are so lucky to be seeing it at all, and even more importantly right now in Australian history.

Weredingo is the story of a support group for shape shifters. Shape shifters litter the mythologies of all peoples across the world and The Dreaming is no different. What is perhaps different for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is that their shifters are not static remnants of history past. Rather they represent history, the present, and the future as well. In a revelatory monologue by Colton (Kelly) - and supported by amazing animations by Studio Gilay -  we are clearly shown the connection between ideas, human and landscape - their integral nature, and the integrity of the concepts from a people we Westerners so often underestimate and undervalue.

As I said, this show revolves around a support group for shape shifters. We, the audience, are attending for the first time. As with all good support groups there is free tea, coffee and bickies in the foyer as we wait, and a facilitator (Frankie - Vicki Van Hout) comes around and gets some basic information. As pre-performance framing goes this is superb, so when you show up you might want to already have thought a bit about what your animal shift is before you arrive. Any kind of identifying accessory is most welcome in this very safe space for shifters.

The show starts in dimness and a humaniform wedge-tail eagle (Bunjil) crosses the front of the stage slowly, watching us unwaveringly before disappearing into the darkness upstage. Then the lights come up and the irresistable Frankie starts the meeting. We are all new to the group so she teaches us the meeting mantra which is a commitment to the safety of this space for all beasts, no matter what their form. Then Colton and Birgil - not Virgil!!! - show up and the meeting starts in earnest. 

Through dance and through speech the stories of their shifting are told. Kelly's choreography is a joy to behold. Blending contemporary styles with traditional First Nations movement and dance, Kelly brings past and present into the future with life and vitality. In his hands these dance traditions blend seamlessly - as seamlessly as the text and movement blend in the text-based parts of the show. The pas des trois early in the show with Colton, Birgil (Benjin Maza), and Frankie is delightful and somehow reassuring? In a little side note - Birgil is going to make you laugh and giggle the whole night!

Somebody is late to the meeting though. Just when we think we can settle into a simple and safe support group meeting, Denise (Glory Tuohy-Daniell) arrives. Up until now shifting has been presented as the kind of thing you get used to and become something of a master of. Denise is not that lucky. Her shifting is unresolved and uncontrolled. Almost always triggered into a shifting state, Denise's shifts are painful and violent and cause much injury and trauma to her very own self. This is when shit gets real. As soon as Denise enters the room she smells something different about Frankie and so she cannot relax. 

When Denise tells her story we see the original kernel of this show - or some variation of it - and it is a power, glory, and tragedy deserving of the centrepiece it holds. My favourite moment in the show is when Denise says 'Let me tell you my story' and then breaks into her dance. Because dance is language and it is story, and Denise's story cannot be told in words. It must be seen and felt. It is visceral. It is an experience. 

Dance does what words cannot. This is one of the reasons why Weredingo is so powerful. It integrates dance and text so perfectly that our forebrain and our hindbrain can follow along effortlessly, and our emotions and intellect work together to understand what has been put before us.

Weredingo is funny and it is powerful in its ideas and mythology, but it is also a very important message for us right here and now in 2023. In a country with a failed referendum, Weredingo speaks to what it means to be a social ally. In a world where being a social ally is a currency, and genuinely well-meaning people and corporations are jumping on board at a speed faster than light, Weredingo makes us face what that does look like and what it needs to look like. 

Allies are not needed to make safe spaces. We are needed to fight the fight which makes ALL spaces safe. Rather than creating meeting spaces and community programs for our cause of choice we should be out there in the firing line, stopping the war. If you are an ally you need to be stopping the bullet, not building a wall the bullet can't penetrate to be cowered behind.

Weredingo is the full package. It is beautiful, funny, disturbing, and insightful. The whole proceeding is watched over by Bunjil, who keeps an eye on the people and the land - ever watchful, ever present.

5 Stars!

Sunday 29 October 2023

HAMLET: Theatre Review

WHAT: Hamlet
WHEN: 20 October - 4 November 2023
WHERE: Mycellium Studios
WRITTEN BY: William Shakespeare
DIRECTED BY: Nicholas Opolski
DESIGNED BY: Leah Downey
COMPOSITION BY: Chris Collins and Michael Fenemore
LIGHTING BY: Liam Mitchinson
PERFORMED BY: Claire Baldwin, Megan Davis, Anthony Edward, Gilbert Gauci, Ryan Fahlbusch, Michael Fenemore, Charlee Liddell, Rouzbeh Nadjar, Don Nicholson, Anastasia Sidorova, and Alayne Wright
AV BY: Regan Wood
STAGE MANAGED BY: Eleni Rogers

Charlee Liddell and Michael Fenemore - photo by Bernie Phelan

I can't believe I am saying this, but I have finally seen a production of Hamlet I quite enjoyed. Staged in the cold depths of the Mycellium Studios carpark, the concrete finishes, low roof, and echoing chamber really suits this play because it becomes viscerally understandable how these people are so enmeshed in each others lives and how believable it is that they can feed on each other in frenzies of paranoia. This particular iteration of what must surely be the most over-performed play in Western history is presented by AVID Theatre.

So first, let's deal with the elephant in the room. You all must have figured out by now that I am not a fan of staging the plays of William Shakespeare in a modern Australia. This a two-fold issue for me. The first is that I think bringing a play alive on stage gives it power and efficacy, and Shakespeare's plays are full of misogyny, racism, and cultural appropriation. This does not mean I want Shakespeare cancelled. I am very happy for his writings to be studied as a point of academia, just not staged and presented as part of a canon. 

Secondly, to stage a Shakespearean play in modern times usually requires a lot of editing and 'adapting' to make it meaningful and link it in to current conversations. In my opinion as a playwright myself, I believe once you do this, you are not presenting Shakespeare's work at all. Instead you are passing off something you have plagiarised and selling it as an authentic product to get people to see the story you want to tell, but which you don't believe people would actually pay to see. You might be right, but that doesn't make it right.

Director Nicholas Opolski's Hamlet is surprisingly close to Shakespeare's original. Whilst there are probably edits all through the text (or perhaps not), the glaring removal is all reference to Fortinbras. It may have been deemed irrelevant but by removing it the logic of the play is damaged. The King (a wonderful video (Regan Wood) cameo by Opolski) died a month ago, yet all the young lads who came for the funeral are still here to see wooing and the wedding of Claudius (Anthony Edward) and Gertrude (Alayne Wright) rather than returning to their studies and other activities. Why? And the guards are tense and on watch. If this is a time of peace, why?

Regardless, young Hamlet's existential crisis is the meat of the play and Michael Fenemore does a good job with the complexities of the character even if he is too old for the role. Yes, I know, it has been done so many times before. In fact, it is rare for Hamlet to be cast age appropriately which is a shame because so much of what Hamlet is and does only makes sense if he is a rash, over-energised, over-sexed teenager with no life skills. It is also a whole lot of creepy when paired which whatever young innocent is cast as Ophelia (in this case, Charlee Liddell). You may just be starting to understand some of the problems of staging Shakespeare in modern times around about now ;)

This production of Hamlet has all of Hamlet's peers (except Laertes (Ryan Fahlbusch)) cast as sexy, long-legged, long-haired brunettes. This had the potential to be an act of genius, particularly with a younger Hamlet, but the restraint in this area leaves the show in a sadly PG state although it still does titillate the imagination. Two of my favourite performances in this Hamlet are from Liddell who creates her Ophelia with the lightest of brush strokes, and Claire Baldwin who is an energetic Horatio and a grumpy young Rosencrantz full of attitude.

My other favourite is Don Nicholson as Polonius. What a scurvy knave this ass is indeed! I would have liked a touch more oil in the performance but he balances between evil and comic very nicely indeed.

All of the mistrust, machinations, and bloodshed take place in a cold, concrete cemetery. These people are the ghosts of people long dead buried, told in the burial ground in which they have lain for centuries. The thrones and furnishings are tombstones in the mausoleum of treachery. Designer Leah Downey has created the world of this play with, again, the lightest of touches, but everything is exactly what it needs to be, and the cast manage the scene changes with no break in pace, keeping the world alive. I don't love the costumes as much, but there is a certain logic to most of them. I was not convinced by the Japanese flavour of Claudius' great coat or Gertrude's Kimono dressing gown.

The sound is minimal, but when it is used the compositional bites created by Fenemore and Chris Collins are powerful and raise the stakes every time. Liam Mitchison's lighting is literal, but creates great atmosphere in such a snow cold, white space. I mentioned the ghost of the King earlier, but it is worth saying I really love how this was done here.

There is so much to love in this production of Hamlet which continued to surprise me all the way through. I found that I did not mind sitting through over two and a half hours for this show at all. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes is well staged thanks to the help of fight director Lyndall Grant

The other thing I enjoyed was how much of the text was revealed, particularly in a space so inherently reverberative. I understood every word in every line except for Edwards. He needs to slow down and speak slightly softer. In this space over-projecting is the worst thing you can do to be heard. It had previously passed me by unnoticed that Shakespeare used the word 'goop' for example. 

It had also never before occurred to me to question who wrote the love-letter to Ophelia. I don't know if it was a deliberate intention by Opolski, but I got a thrill of surprise when the new idea occurred to me. I had several of these small little 'wait, what?' moments which are part of what made this production so enjoyable and intriguing to watch.

I suppose that one of the points of restaging shows is not only to let it reach new audiences, but also to perhaps reveal new nuances and unrealised ideas along the way. Most productions of Shakespeare tend to rest on tradition or gnaw away so roughly at the original there are not even all the bones left on the carcass. AVID Theatre's Hamlet has found a sweet spot between the two. If you must go and see a Shakespeare, this production of Hamlet is the one to go and see.

4 Stars

Thursday 26 October 2023

MINUSONESISTER: Theatre Review

WHAT: MinusOneSister
WHEN: 17 - 21 October 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Anna Barnes
DIRECTED BY: Marni Mount
DESIGNED BY: Jodi Hope
LIGHTING BY: Tom Vulcan
COMPOSITION & SOUND DESIGN BY: Ethan Hunter
PERFORMED BY: Miela Anich, Damon Baudin, Shontane Farmer, Maiah Stewardson
STAGE MANAGED BY: Ella Campbell

Maiah Stewardson, Shontane Farmer, and Miela Anich - photo supplied

Melbourne Fringe 2023 has been an amazing blend of all the styles and modes of performance you could possibly think of. I have only been able to see the tiniest fraction, and the Festival finished for my at The Explosives Factory watching Doublebluff Theatre's presentation of MinusOneSister.

MinusOneSister, written by Anna Barnes back in 2013, won the Patrick White Playwright's Award that year and has had several seasons across Australia since then. Earlier this year, as part of the coursework for her Masters in Directing at VCA, director Marni Mount staged this play and the team were so pleased they found a way to do a return season in the Fringe Festival.

MinusOneSister sits of the architecture of the Greek tragedy (as written by Sophocles) Electra. In Sophocle's Electra, Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing her daughter Iphigenia in order that the fleet could sail to Troy and bring back Helen. You may remember the production Cygnets in this very same theatre earlier this year, which was a retelling of the Helen/Clytemnestra relationship. 

Iphigenia (Miela Anich) had 3 siblings - Electra (Maiah Stewardson), Chrysothem (Shontane Farmer), and the son Orestes (Damon Baudin). In Sophocles' telling of the story, Electra was traumatised by the death of Agamemnon and Orestes was sent away. Both plotted revenge and eventually came together to make it happen. The spur for the play for Barnes was the question of why couldn't Electra kill her mother herself? Why did she have to get Orestes to do it for her? Whilst I think there is no real reason, and that Electra was just a vehicle for the patriarchal story it can be fun to ponder such questions.

Trying to tell the tale through a modern lens (because apparently we can't just tell modern stories), Barnes has placed the family somewhere in Australia and embellished it with social media, eating disorders, and boardrooms. To channel the chorus, the story is told by all four characters intermingling lines and subject tenses which gives it an intriguingly cubist construct. 

Whilst the play has a lot of impact, riffing on violence in its various forms including rape, homicide, bullying, eating disorders, etc. it is not a specific retelling of Electra. In fact, in the course of filling in unknown and unknowable details I felt like Barnes replaced the sacrifice of Iphigenia with the abduction of Helen when she was a little girl. It probably doesn't matter. It is all fiction and there are no IP concerns lol. To be honest, I love that it doesn't shy away from exposing the violence. There is too much of that in theatre IMO.

As I mentioned earlier, MinusOneSister is directed by Mount who you may remember from the blockbuster Trophy Boys earlier this year. This play is another 4-hander and Mount plays with the actors in the space - a traditional end stage this time - with as much skill and creativity as the earlier play. Unfortunately, the structure of the text in this play doesn't really allow the audience in through the cracks to explore emotion so sadly the impact is not quite there.

Jodi Hunter's set is stunning and incredibly clever and versatile (even if she did miss the cubist gift in the writing). The stage is all white with only the grain in the marble flooring intimating the cracks which will tear this family apart. This tale has a lot of blood, but you are left to stain the whiteness in your mind as the story progresses. The pastel colours of the costumes refuse to interfere with the work our imagination is doing as the family retell/witness/report/experience the events under examination. 

Tom Vulcan's lighting has the occasional literal moment, but most of his creativity lies in shadow play and the furnishing are created and then recreated and then recreated again. Normally I hate this much fiddliness with set, but the design and direction make it work incredibly well. Ethan Hunter's sound is good, but perhaps not quite the driving force he created for Bleached earlier this year.

The acting ensemble is excellent. Stewardson gives us a surprisingly strong and confident Electra considering her incarceration for an eating disorder. Perhaps a touch more vulnerability would have allowed us to care for her a bit more. Anich, as the minusonesister, has an intriguing presence throughout. Farmer is intriguing as the little known sister Chrysothem and also does a great job in a cameo as Clytemnestra. 

Baudin won me over very unexpectedly as Orestes. Within going into childishness, this "baby CEO" presented an innocent blank slate the story wrote itself onto. Whilst I think the story got silly when Orestes is sent to an overseas boarding school, Baudin maintains his character's visage and growth until the ultimate moment of tragedian inevitability. The play goes into an epilogue but it doesn't reference anything from the Oresteia which was a bit disappointing.

MinusOneSister is an interesting play using interesting storytelling techniques. This production is excellent on all levels and is only let down by the problems in the script. I hope this team comes together again soon with a script which will really let them all sing!

4.5 Stars

Friday 20 October 2023

BACK POCKET: Theatre Review

WHAT: Back Pocket
WHEN: 16 - 22 October 2023
WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus (Black Box)
WRITTEN BY: Nikki Viveca
DIRECTED BY: Maeve Hook
COMPOSED BY: Lore Burns
LIGHTING BY: Kyra Ryan
PERFORMED BY: Chelsea Crosby, Sophie Gould, Isha Menon and Jalen Ong

Chelsea Crosby, Isha Menon, Jalen Ong and Sophie Gould

How can you not settle into a show with the opening line 'A queer dove into Time's back pocket...and Time strolled on.'? Jalen Ong (a clown/sprite) is sleeping on a platform covered in an oversized patchwork quilt as these words settle into the space. Here we are, in Time's back pocket too. This is the beginning of a magical tale about finding peace and beauty in a dystopian obsessed world. Back Pocket, presented by Tart Theatre Collection as part of Melbourne Fringe, is that warm hug and meditation on gentle joy we all need in our lives. You can get your metaphorical hug at The Motley Bauhaus.

Back Pocket is a dream of a space where you can do and be anything you want without your development being interrupted by the challenges and harshness of 'the real world'. Four clownish sprites (Chelsea Crosby, Sophie Gould, Isha Menon, and Ong) relax and play and discover and love in Time's back pocket in an intriguing blend of written lyrical passages (Nikki Viveca) and physical theatre.

Directed by Maeve Hook, Back Pocket does have a narrative arc although it meanders through that arc in joy and peace, revelling in the characters being carried by Time rather than having to march alongside it. The story is simple in it's complexity. Jalen wakes up in the pocket and, one by one, the other clown/sprites reveal themselves. There is the hint of a breakup being the catalyst, but essentially the four characters move in together. 

We begin to understand the intention of Back Pocket with the unpacking of suitcases and the joy and detail in pulling every piece out and telling it's story. One of them (Crosby) is reluctant to unpack. "I don't unpack until I have been somewhere for 4 months", but with some gentle modelling and an irresistible array of cat pix, she reveals something impressively gasp worthy. 

Through an array of textual excerpts, some glorious composition (Lore Burns), gentle clowning, and physical games and explorations (Kyra Ryan's lighting plays with them too) we see these four characters settle into fun, play, love and peace as they heal and become whole in preparation to leave the pocket. But do they really have to leave, or can we all be in the pocket with them?

A purest might comment that Ong is the only true physical theatre performer, with the litheness and agility which comes with formal dance training. I don't accept that, though, and as I inferred in the past with my review for Exposed, you do not have to be technically proficient in the traditional way to create physical works of great beauty and grace. What you need is heart, and intention, and authenticity. Hook draws this out from all of her clown/sprites. 

It is inspiring to see everyday people expressing themselves in forms and practices they are usually excluded from because they don't fit a privileged restriction called 'high art'. Ironically what it means is the truth and integrity of the ideas can be absorbed so much more easily because we can identify with the bodies up on stage. None of this diminishes the quality of the art created. In fact, it elevates it. This is real high art.

Feel good shows are quite rare these days. For some reason we have become addicted to sharing stories of pain, sorrow, and despair. In Back Pocket the question is asked 'why can't we look at things through rose coloured glasses?' Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all did that?

4.5 Stars

Tuesday 17 October 2023

SPUNK DADDY: Musical Theatre Review

WHAT: Spunk Daddy
WHEN: 16 - 22 October 2023
WHERE: The Butterfly Club (Upstairs)
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Darby James
DIRECTED BY: Casey Gould

Darby James

With a name like Spunk Daddy it is easy to assume this Melbourne Fringe Festival offering by Darby James is going to be a laugh a minute, lewd hour of traditional cabaret.  In this show you do get all those jizz jokes, but James has something to tell us about sperm donation and the end of the world. This little piece of theatre is not just a cabaret. It is a fully formed mini-musical.

I first came across James last year when he presented his comedy show Protein. After seeing both shows I get the impression James had a bit of difficulty finding his centre after coming out of lockdown. I know I did, and there is something oddly comforting in seeing that other people were struggling too.

In Spunk Daddy James is a salty seaman negotiating the stormy sea of sperm donation. James is a cis gay man who doesn't really want a family. What he wants is time to write his musicals and money to pay for food. An ad pops up on Facebook. He has something the world wants to buy. After talking with family and friends he signs up. What follows is a tale of apathy which becomes ignited into social conscience with each fill of the cup.

I said Spunk Daddy is a mini-musical and by that I mean he tells his tale with more song (all original work!) than spoken narrative. The repertoire includes power ballads, recitative, and there was even a sea shanty. Who can resist joining in with a sea shanty? We all certainly couldn't!

I've always assumed sperm donation is an uncomfortable act - as evinced by the song 'Vulnerable' - which then disappears into a void of done, dusted and forgotten. For James this assumed meaningless act becomes the catalyst for an existential crisis for him and the world. 

Questions about whether he wants to meet the people who use this seaman's semen to procreate, and finding out that when the child turns 18 they can access his information get James thinking about the moral conundrums he has started by selling his viscous sexual by-product. Will the child want to be in this world and will the planet cope with more humans populating the planet? 

This all sounds very deep and it is, but Spunk Daddy is funny and heartwarming. James brings his trademark soft and silky performance style, and his songs are great fun. And yes, there are lots of double and triple entendre which will make you giggle through the whole 50 minutes.

Unfortunately on opening night James was recovering from a lurgy, so we didn't get the full vocal power and range he is capable of, but as the show went on his voice warmed up and I was swept away with the revelation of a beautiful tenor range. I reckon later audiences are going to have an even better experience than I.

The program says the show was directed by Casey Gould, but I find myself wondering if that really happened. I say that because my one criticism of Spunk Daddy is that James didn't really use the stage or his body well. The set dressing of a big ship wheel, ropes, treasure chest, etc were very pretty indeed, But beyond standing and sitting on a crate, not much happened. I do think nerves were in play on opening night, which is pretty normal.

Having said that, who cares? The story is wonderful, meaty, and funny and the man can sing. What you get with Spunk Daddy is a very funny mini-musical for the price of a cabaret show and you will talk about the ideas in this show for days.

4 Stars


Sunday 15 October 2023

LEATHER LUNGS: Happy Ending - Cabaret Review

WHAT: Leather Lungs: Happy Ending
WHEN: 12 - 15 October 2023
WHERE: Trades Hall (Common Rooms)
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Leather Lungs

Leather Lungs

Every so often you go along to cabaret and get blown away from the moment the house lights go down to when they come back up. It's not as often as we would wish, but one such experience is Leather Lungs: Happy Ending at Fringe Hub, Trades Hall.

Leather Lungs has a 4-octave vocal range (for real!). Leather Lungs has the vocal power and grit of Aretha Franklin, the sweet vocal lightness of Mama Alto, and the deep baritone of James Earl Jones. Leather Lungs also has jokes coming a mile a minute, enough cartoon voices to do his own Warner Brothers cartoon show, and enough pathos to bring the room to tears.

Leather Lungs: Happy Ending starts like a lot of other drag cabaret shows. The artist comes on stage with a power melody, there are sparkles and spangles as well as an array of ass jokes and splayed legs. Right from the start though, we know Leather Lungs is something special because this artist does not hide their talents. None of them (wink, wink).

If I had to find a criticism, it would be that Leather Lungs does all of their vocal gymnastics from the very first to the very last song with a couple of notable exceptions I will mention later. All the vocal talent and gymnastics are brought out right away and in a way, this means we have nothing left to look forward to except song selection and what is hopefully a good yarn (and it is, believe me).

The power of the vocals belies the vulnerability of the person singing and it is breath-taking how generous Leather Lungs is with their personal story of horrific domestic abuse. They counteract this with intensely joyous and loving stories about their family in Aotearoa which begins by explaining that mum makes all their costumes. Leather Lungs cries honest tears of love as they talk about leaving their nephew behind before breaking into the most glorious - and funniest - version of 'Old MacDonalds Farm' you are ever likely to hear.

There are two songs in this show which really stood out to me because of their honesty and simplicity. These two songs have no gimmicks. The first is an ode for their parents who are in the audience, and the second (ABBA's 'The Winner Takes It All') is an homage to survival.

Leather Lungs hits all the bangers including 'It's Raining Men' and 'The Voice'. I suspect 'The Voice' is standard repertoire but it couldn't be more powerful or potent at this point in time in Melbourne and Leather Lungs demands (theatrically, of course) that we take part in the song, just as we are about to take part in the biggest decision of the century for us.

Leather Lungs is an amazing vocalist and an outrageous and authentic performer. You will have to look far and wide to have a night so rousing and yet elegant in places.

4.5 Stars


Saturday 14 October 2023

FOR LOVE NOR MONEY: Theatre Review

WHAT: For Love Nor Money
WHEN: 11 - 22 October 2022
WHERE: Trades Hall (Meeting Room)
WRITTEN BY: Angus Cameron
DIRECTED BY: Justin Nott
PERFORMED BY: Clarisse Bonello, Matthew Connell, and Alexander Lloyd

Matthew Connell and Alexander Lloyd - photo by Chelsea Neate

I often get frustrated by the Fringe 45 formula and I have really enjoyed how some shows in the late timeslot this year have allowed themselves permission to expand beyond that and give their shows some of the time they need to develop and resolve. For Love Nor Money, showing in the Meeting Room at Fringe Hub, is one of those shows. Presented by Victorian Theatre Company, this new play expands to almost an hour and half which makes it a real and satisfying night of theatre.

Love Nor Money, Angus Cameron's latest play, follows the love triangle of Mel (Clarisse Bonello), Liam (Alexander Lloyd), and Ryan (Matthew Connell). The play does not follow the natural timeline of their intersections. I don't know how much of the structure was workshopped in rehearsal, but in a post-dramatic arc, the play follows the fluctuations of the relationships - the highs and lows, the connections and the disconnections.

Mel and Liam are a couple. She is an emerging film director and he is an up-and-coming poet (or he thinks he is...). They have been a couple for a long time but it is a relationship which regularly includes a third. Mel notices someone (Ryan) one night and convinces Liam that Ryan might complete a new menage a trois.

Ryan is a political aide but to a certain extent, in this iteration of the play, that is somewhat irrelevant. What is important is that he is a source of money. That comment might give you a slightly wrong impression about the play though - or perhaps the correct one. His clothes set him apart in this production. As the play progresses and the characters are revealed, as well as the circumstances of their coming together (remember I said it is not chronologically linear), I find myself wondering how much of Mel's interest was piqued not only by a pretty man, but also by a man so obviously of means? 

The actors are of the finest calibre. Connell plays the metamorph with skill, revealing little yet being an agent of great impact on the triangular relationships in all of their manifestations. His ambiguity is the catalyst from which Mel is able to take her career leap of faith, his money is what facilitates this. I very much enjoyed how Bonello balanced the play of emotions which underpinned the conflict between her ambitions and her need for human connection. 

In many ways, Liam is the only emotionally honest character and Lloyd's portrayal of vulnerability in a world too fast and too entrepreneurial was heartbreaking. It was also delightful to see those social and emotional stereotypes of man and woman inverted. We need to break them down. Women can be ambitious and men can be vulnerable. Thank you Angus!

Justin Nott as director is a good match with Cameron's writing. They share an artistic ouvre and work in similar creative spaces. There is a small schism though. Nott sits firmly in the realm of post-dramatics and this dominates in this production. I think, though, that Cameron's writing is more post-truth and I wonder if some important sub-text has been left unrevealed in this production of For Love Nor Money. That may also be a result of fitting the show into the Fringe construct. I would love to see another iteration of this play where Cameron explores the politics of Ryan and the poetry of Liam a bit further although I realise that is generally not the timbre of this playwright's past work.

Nott has made some really clever choices. The staging keeps the three characters locked in a tight triangle together - a rather literal interpretation with fluro lights defining the space and only a chair at each point. I mentioned earlier about how much I liked the costuming, but I found the scene changes too long and repetitive. Music filled the void but it was disconcerting to hear the theme for Vikings in this context. That music is too iconic and pulls us out of this story and into that one. Eventually, in the second half of the show, the scene change music did change into strong driving, less recognisable stings. This worked much better, but in my opinion the time wasted changing costumes would have been better spent exploring sub-text, and building breathing space into the rapid-fire dialogue, interrupting the rhythm to emphasize intention.

That probably sounded like I didn't enjoy For Love Nor Money but I really did. I loved the ideas in the play and I really enjoyed the characters. They are modern, and they are meaningful. They make hard choices and they live and love with passion. They are us and they are now. Be very afraid of that...

4.5 Stars

Thursday 12 October 2023

FLUSH: Theatre Review

WHAT: Flush
WHEN: 10 - 14 October 2023
WHERE: Queen Victoria Women's Centre (top floor)
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Isabella Gilbert
DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth Walley
STAGE MANAGED BY: Dylan Lines

Elizabeth Gilbert - photo supplied

Tinder shows abound and they generally follow a formula. Flush, on the other hand, goes much deeper, connecting climate change and 400 years of literary history with intensely minute detail of Tinder hook ups nobody wants, but all of us can relate to. Flush is being presented at the Queen Victoria Women's Centre as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

The top floor of the QWVC is a small space, but a full glass wall with double doors opens onto an open roof space. Isabella Gilbert (performer) uses this adjunct cleverly, providing her with a space to play and extend and expand in the dance segments of the show, which is in effective counterpoint to the intimacy of her connection to the audience for the spoken sections. 

The show opens with Gilbert in a dance sequence in silhouette. The doors are closed and we are disconnected which creates a curious, voyeuristic intrigue. The choreography is opaque at the start of the show, but it slowly reveals itself as the show progresses and we get peaks into who Gilbert is and was.

The intimacy of the space is perfect for the spoken sections of the show. When inside the room, Gilbert tells us stories of an array of horror/comedy Tinder hook up experiences. Her writing is hyper-naturalistic and the minutia of that style is perfect for such a small space. Gilbert constantly refers to dripping and intersperses her recollections with references to David Attenborough's Frozen Planet TV series. Suddenly the white dance floor covering the carpet starts making sense.

Sometimes, after a particularly icky date/hook up, you feel very dirty and channelling Lady McBeth is a very natural progression. This is not the last we will hear of the bard. Despite reciting a common misconception about Shakespeare 'inventing' new words, the story becomes an apt and witty vehicle to demonstrate the absurdity of the male ego and has the audience in gales of laughter. 

Elizabeth Walley (director) has helped Gilbert navigate the space well, and some of the imagery created by Gilbert with one prop towards the end is almost breath-taking and outrageously funny all at the same time. I didn't really like the costume but it is probably just a matter of taste. The music is loud and insistent and it's energy drives the subtext of frustration. Frustration about men, frustration about climate change, frustration about the limitations of our human body.

Flush is a comic dating show with a difference. With Flush Gilbert doesn't just bring honesty. She brings heart and horror and hope. Hope for something better. Hope for something different. Hope for a future and a world to live that future in. 

Flush is text book post-dramatic theatre. It juxtaposes minutia with grand ideas. The banal and the erudite sit side by side in this very intelligent piece of dance theatre. It was a very happy surprise to see the layers Gilbert has built into Flush.

3.5 Stars

#SWIFTOK - Cabaret Review

WHAT: #SWIFTOK WHEN: 11 Mar - 21 April 2024 WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus (Cabaret room) WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY: Dean Robinson Dean Robinson -...